Young Adult Education Need a Good Cry?: ‘A Summer to Die' by Lois Lowry Kerry Winfrey

The tagline on my copy of A Summer to Die is, “Sometimes It’s Hard for Sisters to Show Their Feelings.” While that’s okay and all, I have a couple of other suggestions, like, “Sometimes One Sister Gets Unexplained Nosebleeds,” or “Sometimes One Sister Spends a Lot of Time Alone with an Old Man,” or, the most accurate, “Sometimes A Summer to Die Makes Kerry Cry (A Lot).”

Although the title might sound like a horror story or a murder mystery, A Summer to Die is actually a poignant coming-of-age novel. When Meg is 13, her family moves to a tiny house in the country. Her dad, a writer, needs the quiet to finish his book. Meg, though, is not too pleased about the move. Not only is she in the middle of nowhere, but now she has to share a bedroom with her perfect sister, Molly. Molly is a beautiful and popular cheerleader who always has boyfriends. Molly has golden curls while Meg just has stringy straight hair. Instead of being the center of attention like Molly, Meg feels more comfortable behind her camera, where she’s in control.

Meg starts to spend a lot of time with the few neighbors they have. Will, the elderly man down the road, convinces her to come inside for tea just minutes after meeting her by saying, “I’m seventy years old. Thoroughly harmless, even to a beautiful young girl like you. Come on in and keep me company for a bit, and get warm.” Sure, he ends up becoming her best friend, but seriously, Meg? Does the phrase “Stranger Danger” mean nothing to you? Meg also meets her other neighbors, a young hippie couple who want her to photograph their home birth. Maybe this is just my 2012 sensibility talking, but why aren’t her parents the slightest bit concerned about Meg’s tendency to hang out with much older people? Like, “Wait a minute…you’re spending the afternoon in a darkroom with a seventy year old man? And you’re going to help with the delivery of a baby? This all seems unorthodox at best.” 1977 was a different time, apparently.

Still, I’m not saying I don’t love this part of the book. I totally love how Will lets Meg teach him about photography and how Ben and Maria name their little hippie baby Happy. The real problem comes when Molly gets sick. What starts out as nosebleeds soon becomes more serious, and eventually Meg’s family realizes that Molly isn’t going to get better. She’s sick, really sick, and she’s going to die. Meg’s dad, such a writer, explains Molly’s death by way of Shakespeare: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” It still doesn’t seem fair to Meg that perfect Molly has to die.

Of course, it isn’t fair; that’s the thing. Meg starts to realize the very grown-up truth that nothing is ever really fair. People die and there’s nothing any of us can do. The book ends with Meg standing in a field with Will, surrounded by the now-dead grasses and flowers. The summer is over, Molly is gone and Meg’s family is leaving the little house in the country. When Meg sees Will hobbling with his cane and realizes that he, too, will be gone someday, I teared up a little. Or, okay, a lot.

A Summer to Die doesn’t hit you over the head with symbolism or resort to a Nicholas Sparks level sobfest. Instead, Lois Lowry’s writing is subtle. She allows you to uncover these little heartaches on your own, so that they seem like private discoveries when you finally trip over them, like feelings hidden in the story she wrote especially for you. And then maybe, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be sitting at your desk on your lunch break, trying not to cry over your peanut butter sandwich.

Some Highlights:

-A Summer to Die author Lois Lowry also write the Anastasia books! Anastasia Krupnik just so happens to be the very first book featured in Young Adult Education.

-I love the cover image at the top of this post, but I’m also a fan of the cover I originally had way back in elementary school:

Cute illustrations by this artist, Jenni Oliver, are featured at the beginning of each new chapter.

-I know I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, but this book gets a bit emotional. If you have half a heart, you are probably going to end up getting at least a little misty-eyed. Listen, I’m not here to judge…I’m just warning you.

-When I was perusing the bad reviews of AStD on Amazon (like I masochistically do for all books I love), I found a a 3 star review from a child that describes the book far more poetically than I ever could: “My opinion of Summer To Die is it is very boring at first then again so are all books but if you keep reading it gets sad and exiting and it teaches you to appreciate your family and annoying siblings. ENJOY!”

What about you…have you read A Summer to Die? Do you love Lois Lowry? Let me know! We can help each other through our emotions. As always, I love to hear your suggestions for old and new books to cover in Young Adult Education! E-mail me at youngadulteducation@gmail.com, find me on Twitter @KerryAnn or leave a comment.

Featured image via Open Library; other image via BYU

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  1. i have a clear memory of finding this book at the library when i was little, and reading it, and hating it and loving it all at the same time. it was like, my first experience with a book that could make me cry, which i didn’t like at all! but i also felt a strange connection to it. i think it actually did kind of shape the way i think about things, if that makes any sense.

  2. Great review. Beautifully written. This review reminded me of this one book I read, You Shouldn’t Have To Say Goodbye. I think the mom dies in that one, of cancer. :(

  3. Thank you SO MUCH for doing this book! For the last few months, I’ve been going through all of my books looking for this one, because I had forgotten the title. And most of the plot. But, I did remember when the young hippy wife explains why she kept her last name when she got married. Now I realize that this was one of the few library books I didn’t force my mom to go out and buy for me after, which is why I can’t find it anywhere :-P

  4. I first read this book in fifth grade and it’s still one of my favorites. Heartbreaking and beautifully written.

  5. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve read this book over the years. It’s so heartbreaking, but there’s something so inherently hopeful and joyful about it that makes it impossible for me to ever put it away for good. Brilliant read.

  6. i vaguely remember reading this. what a morbid name for a kid’s book, huh? like….c’mon lois lowry, you couldn’t have thought of something a little bit more kid friendly?